Silent Voices: A Family Memoir
Reviewed by Beth Taylor
Judith Wright Favor is a former pilot and pastor, now a grandmother, teacher, and writer. Contemplative studies led her to Quaker meetings as inspiration. She is interested in the silences in life and spiritual seeking. She has written three books on spiritual searches and about family secrets. In Silent Voices she tries to “hear” the unexplained stories from her family’s past.
Favor had always known her great-grandmother was placed in a poor house in Oregon during the Depression, but no one could tell her why. Such a dispiriting fact of family lore wore away at her until she needed to give words to her imaginings. The Edgefielders (2012) told the story of that great-grandmother. Silent Voices imagines the story of the son who put her there and the effects of that decision on his marriage.
Leo and Cordelia each lived through childhood tragedies, met in a bank, and enjoyed a passionate start to marriage before the Great Depression sent them into poverty and a hardscrabble existence. When Leo’s father deserted his mother and Leo could barely put enough potatoes on the table for his own children, the poor house seemed the only option left for his mother. Cordelia escorted her mother-in-law to the institution and struggled with their decision all the way to her death.
Favor renders the tensions in a couple’s marriage well, showing how accidents and tragedies battle with human hopefulness and longing. Many of her scenes are realistic and convincing, particularly those of a husband and wife wondering what’s going on in the mind of the other. She shows convincingly the tension between Cordelia’s Christian faith and Leo’s pragmatic realism. And she evokes vividly the Depression, how individuals, then families, slid into destitution after bank closures, job loss, and only occasional manual labor. Later, she weaves in the backdrop of World War II and Hiroshima as they affect Leo’s job and Cordelia’s attempt to help displaced Japanese.
It’s in the monologues that Favor demonstrates the richness of silences; they create understanding, forge bonds, and soothe souls. This is done in interior monologue of Leo or Cordelia: their thoughts of loneliness, frustration, and longing, or their descriptions of memories, which are often cinematic. Favor at times switches from nonfiction to fiction, and from present to past to future tenses. We know that she is working from few known facts, and the blend of genres is understandable. But the uneven writing means we don’t know what to believe even when trying to suspend our disbelief.
In the end this seems less a family memoir and more an excellent young adult novel, an interesting exercise in imagining the lives of one’s ancestors, writing to instruct about the vicissitudes of life and a particular period in American history.